Levon Helm

Electric Dirt

Dirt Farmer/Vanguard

helm2Grateful Dead covers are always fun — remember the 1991 tribute album, “Deadicated”? And “Tennessee Jed” is a great song no matter how you slice it. So when Helm begins the followup to his comeback disc, “Dirt Farmer,” by singing “Cold iron shackles and a ball and chain” against a wall of sound made up of resonator guitar, piano, organ and horns (including the ubiquitous Howard Johnson on tuba), one can’t help but grin from ear to ear.

Then again, Helm’s voice in itself elicits a Cheshire Cat smile, especially in light of the throat cancer that nearly silenced his golden Arkansas twang forever. “Electric Dirt” expands on the Grammy-winning acoustic folk of 2007’s “Dirt Farmer,” with electrified blues and gospel numbers by Muddy Waters, the Staple Singers and Nina Simone, alongside rustic material such as Carter Stanley’s “White Dove” and Happy Traum’s “Golden Bird.” Thrown in for good measure are Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” (from 1974’s “Good Old Boys”); the album’s two originals, “Growin’ Trade” and “When I Go Away” (the former a co-write with producer Larry Campbell and the latter a song written by Campbell for the Dixie Hummingbirds); and “Heaven’s Pearls” (a song by daughter Amy Helm’s band, Ollabelle).

“Move Along Train” is a late-’60s composition by Roebuck “Pops” Staples that only appears as a bonus track on the CD reissue of the Staple Singers’ church concert album, “Freedom Highway.” The harmony vocals by Amy Helm and Campbell’s wife, Teresa Williams, are knockout.

The pair of Muddy Waters tunes (some may notice the disc’s title is a play on Waters’ “Electric Mud” album) was cut during the “Dirt Farmer” sessions: “Stuff You Gotta Watch” has some funky accordion by Brian Mitchell and mandolin by Helm; “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” is all drums, bass and guitar, with Byron Isaacs on bass and Campbell on resonator and acoustic guitars and mandolin.

Four songs on the album feature the Levon Helm Band’s horn section. “Tennessee Jed” and “Heaven’s Pearls” benefit from arrangements by trumpet-playing band member Steven Bernstein. “Kingfish” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” a 1954 Billy Taylor composition popularized by Simone in 1967, feature charts by Allen Toussaint.

Kudos to Campbell, the string wizard and sideman extraordinaire (Phil & Friends, Bob Dylan) who produced “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt,” using basically the same crew of musicians for both. In Campbell, The Band‘s legendary drummer/singer could not have found a better partner.

Tracks
1. Tennessee Jed
2. Move Along Train
3. Growing Trade
4. Golden Bird
5. Stuff You Gotta Watch
6. White Dove
7. Kingfish
8. You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had
9. When I Go Away
10. Heaven’s Pearls
11. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

Total time: 43:03

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Ry Cooder

The UFO Has Landed

Rhino

One of these days, someone’s gonna do the 4-CD box set Cooder deserves — with early Rising Sons and Captain Beefheart material, session work, solo stuff, soundtracks, world music collaborations … But until then, this double CD culled from studio albums and soundtracks will have to do.

“UFO” isn’t the first compilation of the fretmeister/musicologist’s work. Earlier collections were “Why Don’t You Try Me Tonight?” (1985) and “River Rescue” (1994), both “best of” releases; and the double-disc soundtrack anthology, “Music by Ry Cooder” (1995).

Like “Echoes,” Pink Floyd’s 2001 2-CD “best of,” this is not a chronologically sequenced retrospective. Cooder and percussionist-son Joachim picked 34 songs spanning 38 years (from 1970’s “Ry Cooder” to 2008’s “I, Flathead”), jumping in with a couple of tracks from “Get Rhythm” (1987), his last solo album before he entered the 18-year-long “I only do soundtracks and world music now” phase of his career.

From there it’s a game of musical leapfrog, moving forward and backward in time, each track segueing perfectly into the next with only an occasional pairing of songs from the same album.

Twenty-seven selections are from solo releases, with no contributions from “Jazz” (1978) or “My Name Is Buddy” (2007), the latter having no representation presumably because its folk-tale/protest vibe would have disrupted the package’s continuity. Six entries come from the soundtracks to “Johnny Handsome,” “The Long Riders,” “Paris, Texas,” “Southern Comfort,” “Crossroads” and “Alamo Bay.” And one previously unreleased song, a cover of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” featuring Buckwheat Zydeco on accordion, is from 2005 sessions that produced “Cryin’ in the Streets,” a song by Buckwheat that Cooder produced for the Hurricane Katrina benefit album “Our New Orleans.”

As always, while everything he does is superb, Cooder’s sublime slide guitar playing provides the most satisfying music-appreciation moments.

Tracks
Disc One
1. Get Rhythm
2. Low–Commotion
3. Available Space
4. On A Monday
5. Do Re Mi
6. Which Came First
7. The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)
8. Down In Hollywood
9. Smells Like Money
10. Let’s Work Together
11. I Got Mine
12. Cherry Ball Blues
13. Jesus On The Mainline
14. Tattler
15. Teardrops Will Fall
16. Maria Elena
17. Jesse James

Disc Two
1. Paris, Texas
2. Theme From Southern Comfort
3. Tamp ‘Em Up Solid
4. Billy The Kid
5. Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile (Every Woman I Know)
6. Drive Like I Never Been Hurt
7. Feelin’ Bad Blues
8. Boomer’s Story
9. How Can You Keep Moving (Unless You Migrate Too)
10. Alimony
11. Always Lift Him Up/Kanaka Wai Wai
12. Theme From Alamo Bay
13. Dark End Of The Street
14. Why Don’t You Try Me
15. Poor Man’s Shangri-La
16. Going Back To Okinawa
17. Little Sister

Total time: 2:14:22

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William Lee Ellis

God’s Tattoos

Yellow Dog

The godson of Bill Monroe (father Tony Ellis played banjo for the Blue Grass Boys), Ellis is a classically trained guitarist who gave up his job as pop music critic for The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal so he could pursue a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology — and, of course, make new-millennium blues gospel records.

Like kindred spirits Ry Cooder, David Bromberg, Taj Mahal and Jorma Kaukonen, Ellis has fallen under the spell of the Rev. Gary Davis, the master of prewar gospel blues whose finger picking was among the best. With producer Jim Dickinson’s “magic dust,” “God’s Tattoos” delivers on all fronts: recording, arrangements and accompaniment as well as stellar songwriting and musicianship.

Out of the gate is the foot-stomping, slide-winding “Snakes in My Garden.” The accordion-enhanced title cut is a rumba about the inescapable emotional scars everyone has. “When Leadbelly Walked the River Like Christ” is an instrumental featuring an E-bow played on acoustic guitar, producing a surrealistic backmasking effect.

Other highlights include “Search My Heart,” with excellent vocal backing from Jimmy Davis and Reba Russell; and the ballad “Perfect Ones Who Break,” which sounds like an outtake by “Money and Cigarettes”-era Eric Clapton.

Tracks
1. Snakes In My Garden
2. God’s Tattoos
3. When Leadbelly Walked The River Like Christ
4. Search My Heart
5. Four Horses
6. Perfect Ones Who Break
7. The Call
8. Cold And Weary
9. Here Am I, Lord Send Me
10. Jesus Stole My Heart
11. The Missing Moon And Stars
12. Dust Will Write My Name

Total time: 43:19

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Buddy Miller

Universal United House of Prayer

New West

Miller has been making great albums for 10 years and traditionally has gone the hardcore-country route. Here he takes a stripped-down, almost ambient approach and creates a delightfully dark fusion of blues, gospel and folk.

His guitar work on the opening “Worry Too Much” has shades of “Dirty Work”-era Stones or Keith Richards’ “Talk Is Cheap.” But it’s the hardest-rocking song of the bunch and presages a gut-wrenching, meandering journey through the swamp and past the delta, not to the heart but to the soul.

We’re talkin’ spirituality, brothers and sisters. Miller underscores his lyrical topics and topical lyrics with sparse yet rich arrangements – just enough fiddle here, some remarkably restrained organ there. Or maybe the point is driven home with a brief electric mandolin solo or a subtle accordion riff. 

He gets a little help from his wife, Julie, and friends Emmylou Harris and Jim Lauderdale. Tying it all together is the vocal assistance from Regina and Ann McCrary (daughters of the Rev. Sam McCrary, an original member of the Fairfield Four). Regina, incidentally, sang on Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming” and “Shot of Love.”

Can I get an “amen”?

Tracks
1. Worry Too Much
2. There’s A Higher Power
3. Shelter Me
4. With God On Our Side
5. Wide River To Cross
6. Fire And Water
7. Don’t Wait
8. This Old World
9. Is That You
10. Returning
11. Fall On The Rock

Total time: 50.6 minutes

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